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Bienstock film is no ordinary documentary

Tags: Arts Ric Esther Bienstock Tales from the Organ Trade
Ric Esther Bienstock

How do you find one of the world’s most wanted men for an interview? 

Canadian documentary filmmaker Ric Esther Bienstock says she found the ordeal of tracking down Dr. Yusuf Sonmez, a Turkish surgeon nicknamed “Dr. Frankenstein” and the subject of a manhunt for illicit organ trafficking, an easier find than anticipated.

She met up with Sonmez in Turkey at a restaurant, where he was dining with family – his mother and father, wife and young child. The director says it was bizarre trying to talk him into an interview, but he eventually gave in. 

“He said he would be in my film,” Bienstock said. “I looked at him and said, why? He said, ‘because my mother likes you.’”

Bienstock got the first on-camera interview with the infamous surgeon. It may sound like an unlikely catch for any filmmaker, but Tales from the Organ Trade is not an ordinary doc.

The film is an even-handed look at illegal organ trafficking, told from many perspectives: the man in Toronto waiting for a life-saving operation; the various doctors caught in the middle who are haunted by their actions. 

“It really is more complex than you would think about when you read the stuff in the newspaper,” Bienstock says. “You really have to understand both sides to really know why it’s flourishing and why you can’t just crack down on the black market.”

In Tales from the Organ Trade, Bienstock focuses on men from the Philippines who live in abject poverty and hope to sell their kidneys to buyers in the West. 

While many poor donors can use the cash to give their children schooling and build a better home, a few of them go through crippling pain and health problems. Regardless, as the film’s narrator, director David Cronenberg, says, “the lure of using the body as a bankbook remains irresistible.”

Organ trafficking is popular in the black market in India, Egypt, China and many countries in Africa and South America. Kidneys are the most popular transaction in this organ trade.

Some people donate their organs altruistically, but are, as Bienstock says, “one in a million.” Toronto’s Raul Fain, featured in the doc, paid more than $100,000 for a kidney from an overseas donor. The donor received $12,000 of that cost.

Besides tracking down Sonmez, Bienstock also wanted to find Fain’s donor, as well as Dr. Zaki Shapira, an Israeli surgeon involved with trafficking kidneys. She says she contacted Shapira over email and explained to him the kind of film she was making.

For the film, Shapira broke his silence about the controversial subject. “I save people’s lives,” he says in the documentary. “I’m a doctor. People want to live and nothing can change this.”

In the film, Shapira admits that organ trafficking is morally complex and the government should regulate it. There is a growing lobby in North America to have a system of compensation for people who want to donate their organs. 

Meanwhile, people in Canada and the United States may languish on dialysis and can wait more than a decade on a waiting list for a kidney transplant. Their life could expire before the wait is up.

Tales from the Organ Trade premiered at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto last year and has since been a popular staple in the festival circuit around North America and Europe. The doc also won various prizes, including an Edward R. Murrow Award from the Overseas Press Club of America.

Although one could conclude that the poor and vulnerable sacrifice their organs to the rich and needy, it does save lives. The vast majority of donors can survive with only one kidney.

Bienstock says that although she was horrified by the idea of people who were coerced to give away their organs, she found that much of the trade happens voluntarily and those who need them most are desperate to live.

“It’s a horrific crime… taking pieces of someone’s body. It’s the stuff of horror movies, on one hand,” she says. “On the other hand… you have people who are normally law-abiding citizens who suddenly turn to the black market for a transplant. You’ve got be very desperate to do something like that.”

“I ask anybody in this situation: what would you do if your life depended on it?”

Tales from the Organ Trade will have its broadcast debut on the History Channel July 7 at 9:00 p.m. Meanwhile, Bienstock is going to The Hague in November to screen the film in front of an audience of academics, ethicists and law enforcers. 

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